Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Traveling Over the Weekend

On Thursday morning all the news agencies announced that the British had interuppted a terrorist attack that was going to target several England to USA flights and blow them up in midair using liquid explosives.

Immediately after these events the TSA announced that they were raising the domestic terror alert to orange. Orange is the color where certain airports in this country go totally crazy.

That same day I had to fly from Ontario, California to Denver, Colorado. I had a return flight from Denver back to Ontario on Sunday. The differences between these two airports were incredible. Ontario Airport is a medium sized airport that handles around 600,000 passengers per month. By contrast Denver International is a major transportation hub that deals with over 4 million passengers a month. There were many similarities and differences between these two airports.

Both airports were very busy. My flights both directions were full flights. This seemed to be the norm this weekend. I sat in the airports and listened to a lot of gate call messages indicating full or overly full aircraft. Both airports had a lot of passengers in them who were wondering how the new security measures were going to effect them.

In both airports there were constant reminders that we would not be allowed to take any liquids, pastes, or gels through the security area. There were signs outside both airports. There were signs on the doors of both airports. There were signs at the baggage check-in counters. The clerks at both baggage check-in counters were telling everyone who checked in baggage what they new restrictions were. There were announcements blaring over the loudspeakers every couple minutes about the new restrictions. Beyond those similarities there were huge differences in the attitudes and envormonments at the two airports.

In both airports the security personnel looked tired, stressed and overworked. The airport employees and TSA employees in Denver while looking tired and overworked were polite, and courteous to the passengers they encountered. While most of them were succinct and occasionally cold and formal, they were polite. Every sentence was prefaced with a “Sir” or “Ma’am” and always included a “Please” or “Thank you”. They concentrated on doing their jobs and tried to be as polite and understanding as possible in the process.

On the other hand, Ontario airport employees and the TSA agents there were definitely letting the situation get the better of them. They were overwhelmingly surly, angry and in many cases just down right nasty. While standing in line at security there was one TSA agent whose job was to walk up and down the line and remind us about the new baggage restrictions. This man must have seen too many movies with tough as nails marine drill instructors in them because he was doing his level best to intimidate or piss off every single person in that line. He was apparently incapable of citing a carry-on restriction without tacking a threat of punishment onto the end of it.

He wasn’t alone. All the TSA employees at Ontario that I came in contact with or could hear from where I was standing were rude and nasty. People were snarled at, snapped at and shouted at. Not once did I hear a please, thank you, sir or ma’am the entire time I was in the Ontario Airport. Most of the statements from TSA were just a short curt demand. In Denver I was told “Please remove your shoes and place them in the tray on the x-ray belt.” In Ontario I was told “Take off your shoes if you don’t want to miss your flight sitting in the security office.”

In Denver the agent checking our boarding passes and identification held out her hand and when I handed her my boarding pass and drivers licence she asked me “Where are you traveling to today Sir?” I told her I was flying into Denver and then driving up to Cheyenne for the weekend. She then handed me back my documentation and told me “Have a nice flight, and a pleasant weekend, sir.” In Ontario the lady at the bottom of the stairs checking Ids stood there with a permanent scowl on her face and snatched boarding passes out of peoples hands as they started to hand them to her. She would scan the documents, glance at the traveler and then thrust the documents back at the traveler without speaking a word. The only thing I heard her say while I was in line was a snippy comment to a traveler who dropped his drivers licence when it was handed back to him. The TSA employee snapped “You are holding up the line” as this elderly gentleman was trying to bend over and pick up his drivers licence.

In Denver, when I checked my suitcase the clerk who put the baggage claim sticker on my suitcase asked to see my identification, scanned it, and me, then he told me to have a nice flight and then picked up my suitcase and placed it on conveyor belt behind him. I assume that my bag was x-rayed before being put on the airplane. It was not opened or inspected.

In Ontario the agent at check-in without asking for ID, put the tag on my suitcase then told me to “Take your suitcase over to that line.” as he pointed to a line about 50 feet down the hallway. The only polite person I had contact with all day was the United Airlines emplyee who was manageing the baggage check line I had to get in. She was keeping a gap in the line so that we didn’t block passage through the terminal. At the end of that line I discovered that every single piece of checked baggage was being x-rayed AND hand searched there at Ontario Airport.

It was interesting watching the searchers go through people’s suitcases. They would open the suitcase, pat down the sides and top of the bag. Then rifle through the clothes. Each bundle of socks was squeezed, or unbundled. If the clothes were neatly folded, they were rumpled and disarraryed when the inspection was over. In one case a photo album was flipped through to verify it really wss a photo album. When the inspector discovered the toiletry bag, she opened and sniffed every single bottle, or tube in the bag.

Since I was standing in line only 3 feet away from this inspection station I so wanted to ask the inspector if “she knew what a liquid explosive looked or smelled like?” If her answer was no then I wanted to ask why she was wasting her time like that. But since I really did want to get on the plane that day I kept my mouth shut.

It was absolutely insane. They were sniffing every single bottle or tube that was checked onto an airplane in Ontario airport that day.

The crowning touch was the guy in line in front of me when he dropped off his suitcase to be searched. The agent asked “do you have any locks or firearms in your suitcase?” The traveler answered “Yes.” The agent stopped, glared at him, then with a sign of exasperation asked “Which one?” The traveler calmly answered “Both.” He was told to step out of line and wait, which he did.

So I took my turn, answered “No” to the agents questions and was told to “Move along then.” So I moved along, and found myself a spot where I could watch what happened to the guy who had been in line in front of me. He waited for about 20 minutes until his suitcase cleared the x-ray machine and was moved over to the hand search area. The agent looked at the padlock on the suircase and turned to the small group of waiting passengers and asked for the keys. He stepped over near the table and handed the supervisor his key ring, with one key exposed. She unlocked the suitcase and the inspector started her search. When she encountered the locked metal box in the suitcase she set it aside and finished her searching and sniffing. Once she was satisfied that the rest of the suitcase was benign she picked up the locked box. The supervisor who had been hovering and watching asked the traveler for the key to the box. The traveler sighed and said “Your regulations require that I transport that, unloaded and in a locked container. It is a commemorative weapon and I have no ammo for it.” The supervisor snapped “I didn’t ask if you had ammo, I asked for the key.” The man sighed again and showed her which key opened the box.

At that time I was not able to see what was in the box or what happened next because a team of armed national guardmen took exception to me standing in one place that wasn’t actually a line, or a normal waiting area, for so long and told me to “Move along!” Then they followed me through the terminal to make sure I kept moving.

Which brings me to the look of the airports. Ontario airport looked like it was under seige. I wasn’t sure if I was in an airport or a prison camp. There were teams of national guardsmen, carrying both sidearms and rifles, wandering all over the place. Each gate that was loading or unloading passengers was being watched by a team of armed national guardsmen. There were several armed uniformed security agents wandering in plain sight throughout the terminal.

In Denver I didn’t notice any additional armed security agents over what I have seen in the airport since 9-11. They were there. But they were being unobtrusive. Most of them were scattered around the terminal quietly watching all the coming and going passengers. In fact the only difference I noticed in the Denver airport between this weekend and my flight out of there two months ago was that there seemed to be a few more TSA agents at the checkpoints, and there were many more signs around tellig us what the new restrictions were.

When I was in the Denver airport and started noticing how much more civilized and polite the agents were being I decided to run my own little test. I walked up to one of the armed uniformed security officers who was trying to unobtrusively watch the crowd in the airport and asked him “Excuse me, are there any restaurants at the end of this concourse?” He glanced at my face, his eyes scanned down to my feet and back up again, and he went back to watching the crowd. Then while not looking at me he answered “Yeah, theres a Quiznos, and a Pizza Hut down there. There’s also a sports bar but the sandwiches there are prepackaged and not very good.” I said thank you and started to walk away and he replied “Have a nice flight.”

When arriving at Ontario I asked the same thing of one of the roaming armed uniformed security guys. He stopped walking, looked me over quickly, and asked to see my boarding pass and ID. I handed him my drivers licence and boarding pass stub. He looked at them both, then handing them back to me said “Welcome to Ontario. You should go home now.” and walked away without answering my question

So that was my experience of traveling this weekend. I have more to rant about the silliness of our airport security. But this has gone on long enough.

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